Director: Alex Ross Perry
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit
Watch Queen of Earth online in the UK: BFI Player+ / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent)
You can tell a lot from a close-up. In Listen Up Philip, Elisabeth Moss stole the whole film with a single shot of her crying face, after a row with her titular boyfriend. It’s perhaps only natural, then, that Alex Ross Perry’s follow-up should reunite him with his star, and that the very opening should be another close-up of Moss. It’s not a happy sight.
She plays Catherine, BFF of Virginia (Waterston), with whom she spends her summers at a lake house in the woods. The set-up sounds like a horror film and, in a way, it is: the scares lie not in bloodied corpses or undead creatures, but in the monstrous nature of human relationships. There are no axe murderers lurking in the trees at night: the blows are struck by each other in plain sight. And they cut deep.
The film’s trick is to flash back and forward by a year: in the first summer, Catherine and James (Kentucker Audley) are together; in the second, Virginia is with Rich (Patrick Fugit), from next door. Catherine, meanwhile, has been dumped by James and, to top it off, is struggling to cope with the loss of her father. Lonely, bitter and jealous, she resents Virginia for her intimate connection with her new fellow – and, slowly, ever so slowly, her grasp of reality seems to slip.
What follows is some of the best unnerving editing since Martha Marcy May Marlene. Robert Greene cuts the two sides of Catherine – the happy and the haunted – to disorienting effect, scattering her thoughts the more she tries to gather them.
After Listen Up Philip, the result is a marked change of pace for Alex Ross Perry, but the director displays the same knack for getting under the skin (and inside the mind) of complex people, without necessarily invoking sympathy. That detached approach will alienate many, especially in such a closed, mumblecore-like environment, but it makes for a clinically absorbing character study.
At the heart of it is the incredible Moss, switching between smiling and sadness seamlessly, her increasingly disjointed delivery matched by Keegan DeWitt’s fragmented, frail score. It’s a rare, complex female role, and Moss and Perry have proven twice in a row that they are great at creating them; it’s no coincidence that Moss is also credited as a producer here. Waterston, meanwhile, is marvellous as the foil to her manic depression, her equal melancholy only adding to the unpredictable air. It’s rare that you don’t know what a film is going to do next – and even rarer for that to be driven by a sole character. The result is an engaging portrait of friendship – and an unsettling examination of what happens when one goes wrong. Queen of Earth shows us the fallout in close-up detail. It doesn’t stop zooming in.
Queen of Earth is available on BFI Player+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.
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